IMPORTANT NOTES FROM JUSTIN:
US Tour Day 62: Nawlins
Today Uncle John took me on a tour of the city of New Orleans, as seen through the eyes of a 65–year–old local. He explained how this building used to be a corner store or a drug store and how that old building was where he had his first job. He told me about streets and neighborhoods and the histories of edifices. John is a sort of living almanac, priding himself on his knowledge of the city and the history which he has shared with it in the last 65 years. I couldn't have received a more complete tour from any paid professional.
After hours of driving around he took me to his favorite bar, Whitey's Pool Hall. He'd been hanging around Whitey's and playing pool there since he was about nine years old, he said. That would've been the 1950's. I couldn't even imagine. He laughed and said that it wasn't your average bar. Pretty much only men go there. He told me that David Duke—former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan—used it as his campaign headquarters during his attempt to bring his values to the people of Louisiana. He explained that Whitey's was not really a place for black folks, if I knew what he meant.
I didn't know what he meant, actually. I couldn't possibly have less idea what he meant. But, I was interested to find out.
Tha bar itself was situated in a residential neighborhood, surrounded only by houses and lonely for the presence of another place of business. The long, rectangular building was filled with pool tables and local, working–class Joes and a bar paneled with quarter–inch veneer plywood from the 1970s. The walls were mostly bare, but the area around the bar was decorated with Duke for Governer signs and beer posters and pictures of girls and postcards and the occasional Confederate flag.
I could hear the electronic sounds of one of the poker video games over the conversation of the men around me, and it seemed ironic considering the sign above the bar whose tall red letters insisted, "NO GAMBLING."
John—the most generous host—bought be a few drinks. I got my usual, a vanilla vodka with diet cola. His friends were friendly and down to earth and liked to give my godfather a bad time in that way that you do with people you would walk to the end of the earth for without even thinking about it. I met a friend of his who they called Satan. Satan explained to me that my godfather's nickname was 'God'. I thought about getting a photo of them both together, shaking hands, but the idea of my camera vaporizing as it captured something as impossible as Satan and God together in one image kept me from taking the risk. I figured that my memory would be good enough to capture the moment.
In the evening I finally found a café that had wireless internet access—I thought it would never happen, especially since I had spent hours that day driving around and asking people and had gotten nothing but blank stares and "I don't knows". From what I experienced, the greater New Orleans area has about as many cafés with wireless internet as the rest of the world has cajun and creole restaurants and Mardi Gras. Which is to say somewhere between not so much and not at all.
In the evening I went downtown again to the French Quarter. Not knowing if I would meet anybody, I brought the Gulag Archipelago to keep me company. The kwahhtah, as the locals pronounce it, looked a lot like an average European downtown area. I could have been in a town in Piemonte or somewhere in France or the south of Germany. Sure, the vuildings were lovely, but they were lovely in a way that you don't even notice anymore if you live in countries where most towns look like this. It was rather unspectacular except for the novelty that it was like being in Europe except you were actually in the United States.
Here is what I saw: The pedestrian streets were flooded with young people, mostly in their twenties. There were more men than women—a lot more. You could sense that there was great competition for the attention of a female among the throngs of drunk men. Most everyone had a drink of some sort in their hand, taking full advantage of the law that allows you to carry and consume alcohol in public.
The men wore baggy clothing as is typical of Americans these days—pants sagging and barely held on by a belt, shirts draping down like dresses to their knees. Most wore sports team jerseys. The women's fashion sensibilities diametrically opposed the men's—tight, scant, and revealing were the themes, focusing the eyes of the viewer like neon lights around their already highly sought after erogenous zones. I heard lots of people say the word 'dawg'. But, unlike my friends at home who only use this word to describe a canine animal or to mock wannabe–urban slang, these guys really felt like 'dawg' was their word and they used it to describe their people. I kept waiting for the corner of their mouths to upturn as they said that (and other words which I never thought anyone actually said except in jest)—waiting for a little smile showing that they were trying to be ironic or funny. But, it never came. They were serious. Whoa.
Most everyone was black. Nobody was Asian or Mexican. Very few were white. One white man about my age approached me and said, "Yo, dawg. You gots a cigarette I can bum from ya?" I shook my head and apologized that I didn't, but in my mind I thought, "What did he just say? Did he actually call me 'dawg' and not burst into peals of laughter afterwards?" America is a strange place.
The buildings were almost all two stories tall and everything was now a bar or night club or strip joint or tacky souvenir shop specializing in Mardi Gras paraphernelia or t–shirts. People ebbed and flowed in and out of the wide doors of the bars and shops like living waves of drunk sports jerseys.
It was all beautiful to watch—these not–so–distant relatives of mine, these strange folks whose lives are so unlike mine. But, I could only observe for so long before wanting to spend some time relating to just me. So, I got a drink and read alone by candle light in Pat O'Briens bar for a few hours, then I wrapped a bow around the day's moments and called it complete.
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